How to Think Seriously About the Planet; the case for an environmental conservatism by Roger Scruton. Oxford University Press, 2012. 464pp.
How to Think Seriously About the Planet is aptly titled. An Oxford-trained philosopher, Roger Scruton spends over 400 pages considering the appropriate response to environmental issues with the seriousness and thoroughness of one who leaves no trail of argument unexplored. That said, the seriousness of his approach is balanced with a friendly, engaging tone sprinkled with abundant humour, and the combination of his topic with his tone makes his book highly readable.
Scruton begins with a stage-setting look at the voices the average person encounters when considering "the state of the environment." On the one hand there are what Scruton calls "environmental radicals and scaremongers" whose warnings of impending planetary doom result in paralysis and paranoia for the average citizen. On the other hand there are the sceptics who break us out of our paralysis with their assuring words of hope—that all is really and truly well and the statistics are either wrong or have been misrepresented. Scruton steps into the significant gap left by these polarized voices by acknowledging the environmental problems we collectively face: global warming, proliferation of plastics, urban sprawl, and the loss of biodiversity to name a few. Therefore, his is not a book for those who want to scientifically disprove a particular ecological crisis, but for those who, while acknowledging the serious state of the earth's ecological health, nevertheless desire a different (and Scruton would say, more effective) way of tackling environmental problems than unilateral treaties, top-down regulations, and other approaches offered by big government and some international NGOs.
As evidence for his claim of the ineffectiveness of big government to solve environmental problems, Scruton gives many examples of the failure of both Kyoto-type international treaties and top-down regulation. The most infamous of examples for the latter might be the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where, in response to the disaster, the Dutch government immediately offered the United States the use of ships equipped with a technology that extracts oil from seawater—a technology that has been very effective in cleaning up oil spills in the North Sea, removing oil and returning nearly pure seawater to the ocean. But because the water being returned to the ocean would not comply with the EPA's strict standard of 99.9985 percent pure, the offer was declined, leaving the US with a worsening mess, but with intact regulations.
Instead of top-down solutions and large-scale approaches to environmental problems, Scruton advocates for local and small-scale initiatives born out of civil associations, whereby people take personal responsibility through local control. While I do think (and Scruton himself concedes) that issues as large as climate change will require international cooperation on a grand scale, I very much appreciated Scruton's central thesis that the primary motivation for care for the earth is oikophilia—a love of home. Oikophilia, Scruton argues, is what emboldens people to make sacrifices for their surrounding environment and neighbour. Scruton spends many pages tracing the history of oikophilia, particularly in his native Britain, and how oikophilia has been destroyed by internationalism and big-government subsidies and regulations. A good example would be the state of farming, where government subsidies and regulations have favoured agribusiness over local family farms, causing not only the small-plot farmers to suffer, but the environment as well. He outlines how British farmers in post World War II Britain were encouraged through subsides and quotas to remove hedgerows and transition from a more organic multi-crop way of farming to a monocrop, chemically dependent approach, thus destroying both the habitat for biodiversity as well as the very soil in which their crops were grown.
Oikophilia has been the heart string A Rocha (the faith-based conservation organization that my husband and I help lead) has attempted to pluck throughout its thirty year history. We are not an imperialistic organization, but rather almost all the twenty A Rocha national entities around the globe, from India to Australia, have been spearheaded and sustained by nationals who have felt a deep concern to care for their own "place." Here in Canada, we rely heavily on local volunteers to accomplish practical conservation projects, educate school children in the love of place, and grow organic food through a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) model of farming. It is interesting to note that one of the only countries where A Rocha has been seeded yet has failed to grow, is Bulgaria—a country where oikophilia and therefore volunteerism were stamped out during nearly fifty years of Soviet control.
Scruton contends that environmental projects succeed when "little platoons" take ownership and management. We've certainly seen this to be true both in our own organization and other church-based projects. In this regard I'm thinking especially of the community garden movement, where like-minded, green-thumbed folks work together to grow organic vegetables that they then share with less fortunate neighbours through food banks and church programs. They have done these things, in our experience, not out of duty or because they're scared, but because they love their home, which they understand includes more than just their physical dwelling but their surrounding watershed and civic community as well.
In light of the success of small-scale initiatives born out of a love of one's own place, the question then becomes "How do we engender oikophilia?" In the bigger picture, Scruton would advocate for the lessening of central government control so that civic associations and local municipalities are forced to deal with their own environmental issues. Secondly, Scruton suggests that oikophilia can be fostered through education. In this regard I am reminded of Rachel Carson's much quoted statement that "if a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in." This task is obviously going to be challenging given our current youth culture's love affair with the iPod and all things technological, but it is not impossible. In our experience, even the most citified kid comes alive when set loose on a farm or in a forest. This "aliveness" is essentially wonder at the natural world and attachment (or "re-attachment") to "home," which Scruton argues will in turn be transformed into concern and care for the environmental problems of one's local area.
Though Scruton sticks with philosophical and political arguments throughout his book, he ends with two appendices that are highly practical. In the first, Scruton considers the issue of justice and proposes that those who have contributed the most to environmental degradation must bear the onus of repair (a proposal sure to be unpopular countries like Britain and the US—or Canada for that matter). When it comes to that "repair," Scruton suggests that governments initiate a flat-rate carbon tax, the proceeds of which would fund research into green energy solutions. The second appendix is the most tangibly practical, as its title implies: "How Shall We Live?" His suggestions are thoroughly conservative (with an emphasis on the "conserve") and traditional: don't shop at supermarkets, avoid packaging, eat local, live in families, holiday at home or near to home, and don't keep carnivorous pets like cats and dogs. He goes on to say that these solutions will require "small adjustments . . . that require little of us," which gave me pause and made me wonder if Scruton has ever tried to feed a family without visiting a supermarket. That said, his suggestions are indeed laudable and wonderful ways to practically enflesh the conservative philosophy Scruton espouses. If a good number of people did these things, especially in the industrialized West, a great deal of planetary stress would be alleviated. And so, again, we come back to motivation. . . . Time to ratchet up the oikophilia!
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